‘Dark Chapter’: my rape, regrowth and recovery
Winnie M Li was violently assaulted in a Belfast park in 2008. Writing about it, she says, has helped her heal
Winnie M Li, author of soon-to-be published book ‘Dark Chapter’: “As an artist, it was more emotionally difficult to write about my own experience. That sense of helplessness and powerlessness has no shape as a life experience.”
Li (far left) with former US president and first lady Bill and Hillary Clinton and a group of fellow George Mitchell Scholars studying in Ireland
“Is it melodramatic to think of life like that – of a clean split struck straight down the breadth of your existence, severing your first twenty-nine years from all the years that come after? I look across that gap now, an unexpected rift in the contour of my life, and I long to shout across that ravine to the younger me who stands on the opposite edge, oblivious to what lies ahead. She is a distant speck. She seems lost from my perspective, but in her mind she thinks she knows where she’s going . . . she does not know who follows her; she is only thinking of the path ahead.” From the Prologue to Dark Chapter, by Winnie M Li
Edward Connors was following her. A teenage boy “with something odd and untraceable in his eyes”, he had approached her earlier, told her he was lost, asked her for directions.
A stranger in Belfast, she politely tried to be helpful. As she walked on, getting into the rhythm of her hike, he kept turning up again, making her uneasy, frustrating her desire for solitude.
She got to the more remote part of the forest park, high above the city on the mountainside, the sort of place where she felt relaxed and free, able to appreciate the beauty of sunlight filtering through the trees, the smell of warm grass. Looking down, she saw him on the path below, and felt a stab of anxiety. There was no one else around.
Then he attacked her. She struggled but quickly realised that he was strong, angry and extremely violent. He used language that was both racist and sexist. He had a rock in his hand and was threatening to smash it into her head.
He told her she wasn’t the first. He was strangling her. Her instinct told her he was psychopathic, that he was capable of killing her.
She stopped fighting him.
“I chose to live,” she says. “I think most people would.”
He raped her, twice. “Eventually it ended”, she says.
Then he ran off into the forest. The path ahead, for Winnie M Li, was now into the completely unknown.
Her parents, Taiwanese graduates who had emigrated to the United States, had instilled in their daughter a life plan. This included working hard to get into a good university, preferably Harvard, a prosperous career, starting a family, and generally making them proud.
Li had no quarrel with the plan, and duly got to Harvard, though while her parents probably imagined she would go for medicine, she chose instead to major in Irish and Scottish folklore.
“Living in suburban New Jersey, the Ireland and Scotland of these stories seemed unique,” she says. “I became fairly obsessed.”
She graduated with honours, having also found time to engage her social conscience, by organising fundraisers for a cancer charity.
Li describes herself as ambitious, “an over-achiever”, but she is also an adventurer, a solitary voyager. She had already backpacked around Germany and written for a travel guide, when in 1999 the chance came up to apply for one of the first Mitchell Fellowships, named after the US envoy who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement.
“You are selected on the basis of your overall achievements, your leadership skills, your sense of community service,” she says. “It was a chance to live and study in Ireland.”
She got it, and chose to study “gender and sexuality in Irish literature” at University College Cork.
“I did my dissertation on Dervla Murphy – I was struck by how unorthodox she was, just going off on her bicycle across the world. I interviewed her on the phone. She was lovely. I was impressed by her sensitivity to other cultures.”
At the end of the academic year, Li stayed on in Cork, volunteering at the city’s film festival, drawn to the mysterious relationships that film explores between people and places.
Her role was to look after the film-makers, and she went on to work with Lene Bausager in Ugly Duckling Films. “We were quite successful, for a two-person outfit,” she says. One of their films won several other international awards, and Vagabond Shoes, which Li produced, got on to the Oscars shortlist.
In 2008, she helped produce Flashbacks of a Fool starring Daniel Craig. The red carpet launch of that film was scheduled for Leicester Square on Sunday, April 12th, 2008. Li decided to take up an invitation from the US Ireland Alliance to return to Belfast for a few days beforehand.
“It was the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, and as former Mitchell fellows we were invited to take part in a symposium with various politicians. It was quite prestigious. On the Friday night there was a gala dinner at the Europa.
“On Saturday, I had planned to do an 11-mile hike I’d read about in the Lonely Planet guide through Colin Glen forest park on the western edge of the city. It was a way of winding down before the launch.”
She could hear traffic in the distance. After Connors left, she staggered across an area of waste ground and on to the main road. She called a friend. “I said, ‘I think I have just been raped,’ ” she says.
Her friend called the police and they arrived in about 20 minutes. There followed six hours of interviews, a return to the crime scene, the taking of forensics and then a medical at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
“I have nothing but good to say of the PSNI,” she says. She was less impressed by the hospital where she was to drink plenty of tea “and maybe a wee glass of wine” and sent back to the Europa. There was no readily accessible counselling.
She was back in London in time for the launch. A designer had lent her a diaphanous white Grecian-style gown, and her bruises showed, but she smiled her way through the event.
Inside, however, she was devastated. In a piece she later wrote about that time, she describes feeling “as if a giant knife has just been ripped through my insides gutting me clean so that I’m a mere shell of who I once was.”
Her heart, she says, went into hiding.
Within days, the police arrested Edward Connors. Li took part in a virtual identity parade, then went to a friend’s hen party.
She followed events in Belfast online. “It was surreal,” she says. There was a vigil, which she appreciated.
She was puzzled by the way Northern Irish people kept describing her as Chinese. One woman came on a radio show to say, “That poor wee Chinese girl, her life is ruined now.”
“It was strange,” she says. “They did not say that Connors was a Traveller – though that seems just as irrelevant.” He was from a halting site near Colin Glen.
She learned that another young woman, Megan McAlorum had been raped and murdered near to where she had been attacked. (Thomas Purcell, the 19-year-old convicted for the murder tried to blame his victim, claiming she had sneered at him for being a “gypsy”).
In the year that followed the attack, post-traumatic stress dominated her life. She was too exhausted to work, tried to travel again but found that she had “lost all confidence in myself” and that she was full of fear.
Returning to Belfast for the trial was tough, seeing the places she’d been, hearing the accents, knowing she would have to see Connors again.
On the day it was due to start, at Craigavon courthouse, he changed his plea to “guilty”.
Six weeks later, she returned to hear him sentenced to eight years in prison. She drank champagne with her friend on the flight home to London. “I felt I had done my duty as a rape victim,” she says.
A few weeks after the attack, Li wrote a few paragraphs which she has now, seven years later, developed into a soon-to-be published novel. She took the Liverpool boat back to Belfast to research it.
“I realised I hardly knew the place,” she says. “It was an interesting balance, putting yourself in the mind of a teenage serial rapist, but it was never going to work if I couldn’t give him a believable voice and make something sympathetic about him.
“Actually, as an artist, it was more emotionally difficult to write about my own experience. That sense of helplessness and powerlessness has no shape as a life experience.”
She made friends in Belfast. She went on to backpack around Southeast Asia, and to work in Qatar and Singapore. She is now able to stride along the forest paths of the world again, without terror.
Li has just been shortlisted for the 2015 Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize, which recognises women who work against male violence.
Dark Chapter has already, on the basis of a few sample chapters, been highly commended in this year’s Crime Writer’s Debut Dagger awards. Li has a column on the Huffington Post, and has written a play.
She cofounded a festival in London, which took place this summer. The Clear Lines festival aimed to “create a space in which to talk about rape and sexual assault”, bringing together comedians, artists and writers as well as psychologists, activists and people who have experienced such violence to explore “the misogyny of rape culture”.
In preparation for writing the book she did a master’s in creative writing at Goldsmiths College in London, and she is about to embark on a doctorate exploring how “being able to use digital media to share the truth about the experience of rape allows survivors to gain agency and reframe the violent event in their lives”.
What Li has learned has made her angry. Why does such a profound silence surround rape? Why is it so hard to get state-funded rape counselling? Why does the publicity material for the Colin Glen Park offer no warnings that there have been attacks on women there?
In 2012, Connors violated his probation and went on the run in the Republic for a year, yet he was later given bail again. “The same judge, on the same day, refused bail to a man who damaged a painting,” she says.
She speaks about a rape victim at Harvard who said she wasn’t taken seriously. “I am outraged by that – how can Harvard take plagiarism so seriously and not rape?” she says. “Why are victims put on trial?”
After the attack, she saw herself as “a guardian angel come too late” to help her younger self, the 29-year-old who thought she knew where she was going.
She has changed. Writing about the horror of rape, she has also noted that “the experience contains the potential for regrowth and recovery, the way a broken bone mends itself to become even stronger”.
She is learning to allow herself simply to enjoy life. Her old self had been deterred from her deepest ambition, to be a writer, by her parents’ well-meaning warnings that this would be an unlucrative and unpredictable career.
Her experience of rape has taught her that life cannot be scripted or entirely planned.
Winnie M Li has lived to tell the tale.